May 8, 2014
by Ty Johnson
One Texan on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security questioned border fence construction Wednesday during the committee’s hearing on government waste within the Department of Homeland Security.
While the unique missions of the department’s many components, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, make it difficult to create uniformity within the department, lawmakers have filed legislation to encourage DHS to get its house in order.
The agencies where risk was deemed highest include CBP, ICE, Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.O’Rourke noted two projects along t
he border that were receiving heavy capital investment even as complications were revealed.
“Generally, I thinkthat spending withinthe Department of Home-land Security is out of control,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
During the hearing, O’Rourke noted that his assessment is backed up by countless GAO reports that show DHS beginning expensive projects without knowing the full cost or having defined goals for the projects.
O’Rourke said the classic example of a border security boondoggle was SBINet, a part of the Secure Border Initiative that DHS launched in 2006.
The project cost ended up topping $1 billion before it ultimately was scrapped by then-Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2010, he said.
The project had intended to place technologically advanced towers along the border to help with border security, but ultimately the department had nothing to show for it.
“What is very concerning to me is I don’t know how much DHS has learned from that very costly solution,” he said.
O’Rourke said he sees similarities between SBINet and DHS’ current plan to place integrated fixed towers along Arizona’s border with Mexico to provide additional monitoring of activity. The price tag on that project is poised to top $500 million even though O’Rourke said there are no metrics or clear lifecycle costs for the project.O’Rourke also criticized a $5.5 million project to erect a half-mile stretch of border fencing at Hart’s Mill, a historic crossing point near El Paso.
The freshman congressman said crossings at that point have decreased recently and are now a fraction of what statistics indicated four years ago, but the project is still moving forward.
“Why fence a half-mile section when there’s no demonstrable need?” he asked, explaining that he brought that up with former DHS leaders and was told that the projects were too far along to be halted.
O’Rourke said while the El Paso fence project didn’t account for a large percentage of the department’s budget, the number of other projects along the border could end up costing taxpayers a lot to cut off land from the rest of the country.
“$5.5 million may not sound like a lot, but $5.5 million here, $5.5 million there — soon it adds up and becomes real money,” he said.
O’Rourke, like many Democrats in Congress who represent border districts, said fencing in and of itself is not a smart investment for the federal government.
“Whatever you think about a wall, the need is just not there,” he said, explaining that the costs of building and maintaining a fence along the border had little return on investment compared to other expenses.
“That money could go to hire customs officers, which we desperately need along the border,” he said.The full cost for hiring an additional customs officer, he said, is about $144,000, but the Commerce Department has found that single hire can help contribute an additional $2 million into the economy while creating another 33 jobs, many concentrated in border states like Texas.
O’Rourke said DHS should work to redistribute its assets, especially personnel, to meet the needs along the border and stop constructing fixed structures.
He said he thinks contractors are to blame for the runaway border spending, as the GAO report suggested that was the issue with SBINet.
“Ultimately the contractors were writing the scope of the contract,” he said. “The agency itself no longer had control, which is why it turned out to be such a fiasco.”
The DHS Acquisition Accountability and Efficiency Act, which aims to curtail spending within the department, has been placed on the House calendar and will be considered by the full House after its Committee on Homeland Security gave it a favorable recommendation last week.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela Jr., D-Brownsville, serves on the committee but was not present for Wednesday morning’s hearing.